“Flint has pulled through a difficult journey, and is now standing on the verge of great potential and promise … Flint is a community that has been built and sustained on the fierce resilience of its residents, and we see the Firebird as a symbol of that resilience.” — Costa Papista, president of the Flint Firebirds, on the OHL team’s nickname (March 16, 2015)
Outsiders knew it. Insiders knew it. The Ontario Hockey League knew it.
Under the control of owner Rolf Nilsen, the 2015-16 Flint Firebirds were a dysfunctional mess, and the situation wasn’t going to fix itself.
“There was no manual for dealing with what had happened in Flint,” OHL commissioner David Branch says now. “It was certainly something that we’ve never experienced before.”
How do you bring order to a toxic environment, to a situation so unfamiliar and so bizarre?
We’ll get to that in a bit. First, a refresher on the months-long Firebirds saga:
• On Nov. 8, 2015, Nilsen fires coaches John Gruden, Dave Karpa and Petr Jonak. Playing time for Nilsen’s son, so-so OHL defenceman Hakon Nilsen, is the main point of contention. Ice time is the ultimate currency in junior hockey.
• Flint players quit en masse in response to Nilsen’s knee-jerk dismissals. The walkout forces Nilsen’s hand; the next day, he rehires the same three coaches with three-year contract extensions.
• Sensing potential future conflicts of interest, Branch sends a firm, written warning to Nilsen, who signs off on the document and agrees to end all meddling with hockey operations.
• Over a span of about 90 days, Nilsen violates the terms several times. Most notably, he hires Sergei Kharin as a “special advisor” to ownership. Kharin moves shadily, at one point completing a trade without the consultation of the club’s general manager.
• On Feb. 18, Gruden and Karpa were fired again and the players refused to practice under Kharin, now the interim coach. The OHL responds again. Among other penalties, the league suspends Nilsen and Kharin until further notice.
Branch and trusted colleague Joe Birch embark on a four-hour drive from Toronto to Flint. The objective upon arrival: stop the bleeding. Immediately.
So how does a recently relocated franchise recover from such a dramatic setback?
Step 1: Target the root of the problem
Many may not realize that Nilsen, the villain in the story, remains the Firebirds’ owner. He is powerless from a hockey perspective, though. Following a third-party investigation, the OHL in April suspended the Norwegian billionaire “from being directly or indirectly involved” with hockey operations for five years.
They also fined him $250,000 and stripped the club of its third-overall selection in the 2016 OHL draft. In addition, if Branch’s orders are not followed, the league can force the sale of the team, which Nilsen owns outright.
“The issue, in our view,” Branch says, “was solely Mr. Nilsen’s difficult time controlling his emotions and channeling them in the right way.”
By all accounts, Nilsen — who was unavailable for an interview for this story — has been on his best behaviour since the spring ruling. There have been “no red flags,” Branch says, and Nilsen is erring on the side of caution. (He recently inquired about having dinner with new GM George Burnett and the coaching staff, which is perfectly OK.)
Head coach Ryan Oulahen — who, along with Burnett and associate coach Eric Wellwood, accepted the OHL-appointed position in May — reports zero interference on Nilsen’s part.
“It’s been exactly what we thought it would be,” Oulahen says. “There’s been certain rules set in place and that’s been totally abided by.”
A survey of a dozen OHL executives, scouts and agents yielded similar responses. One rival executive says, “No news is good news. It tells me there’s a lot of stability. It looks like they’ve righted the ship.”
Nilsen, who earned his fortune in the marine industry, can file for a return to normal circumstances after three years of good behaviour. For what it’s worth, Nilsen did not appeal the five-year ban and, at the time, said reinstatement is a goal.
“There’s a lot of factors and a long road to go yet,” Branch says of possible reinstatement. “I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point as to what may or may not happen. All I can say is that we’re closing in on the halfway mark of this season and it’s been a very enjoyable experience.”
Hakon Nilsen — the 18-year-old stuck in the middle of a storm fed almost singlehandedly by his father — remains on the Firebirds roster. Sidelined by an injury for a short period, the blueliner has two points in 21 games this season. He is a third-pairing defenceman and is receiving the appropriate ice time for a player of his calibre.
“He’s certainly bought in, just like everyone else on our team,” Oulahen says. “It’s been a really, really good situation.”
“Hakon’s a good kid,” captain Alex Peters says, “and he was put in a tough spot. I think he handled himself well. He’s an important member of our hockey team.”
Step 2: Avoid making any big splashes
At the end of the tumultuous 2015-16 regular season (Flint missed the playoffs by 10 points), the OHL could press the reset button — on its own terms.
The league did not entertain the idea of leaving the blue-collar central Michigan city following a single season — “there were never any second thoughts on our mind,” Branch says — so a path was forged.
There was no manual for dealing with what had happened in Flint. It was certainly something that we’ve never experienced before
“We knew what we had to do,” says Birch, who assumed a director of hockey operations role with the Firebirds in February and remains involved in a consulting role. “We knew, for the upcoming season, hiring people that could immediately have a positive impact on the culture and on the environment was important.”
Burnett, a veteran junior hockey man who got his OHL start nearly 30 years ago, was a prudent choice for GM, given his reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian. The Hamilton Bulldogs had just let him go as coach/GM. The OHL pounced.
“I wish I could say that I knew the appointment of George Burnett would be as positive and rewarding as it has been. I wasn’t absolutely sure because of the nature and potential volatility, you might say, in Flint,” Branch says. “But he, in fact, has been the ideal person to go in there.”
With little consultation, the OHL hired the coaches as well, two up-and-comers in 31-year-old Oulahen and 26-year-old Wellwood. Both had some coaching experience and, as recently retired players, could relate to Flint players on a personal level.
Soon after, goal-scoring forward Ty Dellandrea was the next step forward for the post-mayhem Firebirds. The fifth-overall pick in the OHL draft committed to the organization a couple of weeks into its new era.
“Obviously we had a bunch of questions, right?” Dellandrea says of the deliberation with his family and his agent. “But we talked with some people from the OHL and around the league and we knew we weren’t going to be in any harm. We were pretty confident from the start.”
Word spread quickly. Six other 2016 draftees signed up. The OHL, a source noted, had tidily “smoothed things over” in a short time.
“Parents of young players, in particular, when you sit in their living room for the first time and talk about your program, you have to develop their trust,” Burnett says.
“We worked hard at sending the right message. Word of mouth is the best thing in this business. If you don’t keep your word, or you don’t do good work, or you don’t handle yourself with integrity, your program will suffer.”
Step 3: Control the controllable; ignore the rest
Burnett is correct that integrity is paramount under these circumstances. And when integrity is absent, reputations are tarnished.
In the Firebirds’ case, Nilsen’s actions had lingering effects on the on-ice product. Even with fresh faces in charge, the franchise lost two marquee players in the off-season.
Offensive defenceman Vili Saarijarvi, a Detroit Red Wings prospect who will star for Team Finland at the 2017 world juniors, moved to the Mississauga Steelheads in June. It was a “personal decision” that is “somewhat complicated,” Saarijarvi’s agent Jay Grossman says now. And top scorer Will Bitten, a Montreal Canadiens third-round pick, simply refused to join training camp in Flint. A trade request landed him in Hamilton.
Attendance at Flint’s Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center is another issue. It is down about 400 per game after 16 home games, according to HockeyDB.com data.
“It’s fair to say that we had to regain the trust of the community, and I think we’ve done that,” says Papista, the Firebirds’ president. “We did lose some sponsors but, really, not too many. We had a good off-season as far as picking up some new business as well.”
The shockwaves of last season’s soap opera should equalize over time, both in terms of butts in seats and on-ice performance (Flint owns a 15-14-0-2 record and is in eighth place in an extremely strong Western Division).
Ten players on the Firebirds’ current roster are carryovers from the 2015-16 season. Peters and assistant captain Nick Caamano, both Dallas Stars prospects, have stuck around and can feel the tide turning.
“It’s definitely a lot better of a situation,” Caamano says. “The league stepped in, hired some great coaches and we’ve got good management. It’s definitely a nice change and we really like it so far … It’s stability and normality for us.”
Oulahen, for what it’s worth, is focusing on the present, not the past. Since Day 1 of his tenure, the ex-North Bay Battalion assistant coach has been preaching that “last year was last year and this is a fresh start for everybody.”
Culture, you see, is something a coach can control. “If there’s one slogan I say to these guys regularly it’s, ‘Let’s not waste time,’” Oulahen adds.
While detoxing from a debut season of immense turmoil is a less-than-ideal situation, the Firebirds seem to be making the best of it. It’s a work in progress, but the emphasis appears to be on “progress.”
As one scout phrased it, the Flint Firebirds are a scrappy bunch “playing with a bit of an eff-you attitude.”
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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